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  • Reverend James Squire

When Words Fail Us, We Are Saved By The Voice Of The Poets

Photo By Mark de Jong

We have failed in finding the words to define how God must be present during this time of strife

in our nation and in the war between Hamas and Israel. Sometimes words fail us so we have to look to the words of the poets who can express that which is not expressible. The poet’s voice can often be God’s voice. I am indebted to an article in the New York Times (April 10, 2023 Biden and Irish Poets: Hope and History, A Lifelong love) for examples of how poets have been, in my words, the voice of God. I was struck by this yet again as President Biden turned to Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet, who speaks to him in a special way. When searching for the right words after visiting the war zone, President Biden turned to Seamus Heaney and his words, “History says don’t hope on this side of the grave. But then once in a lifetime the longed for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme.” Isn’t that what we Americans yearn for us as well as the people in the Middle East. We need to allow God’s voice to be present in the form of history and justice merging. I believe that is where God is found. The Nobel Prize judges called Seamus Heaney’s words as “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth.”

Poetry can be God’s voice because it captures both thoughts and feelings merged in the soul. It does not just have us just experience the cerebral but also the feelings that we need to express. Biden has used Yeats “Easter 1916” line most frequently that “the world has changed. Changed utterly.”

This past summer one of my closest friends and colleagues, Bob Bishop, died suddenly in his sleep. I was asked to give the eulogy at his memorial service. I couldn’t find those right words basically because I had too much that I wanted to say about him. His brother got to the heart of the matter when he said of his brother’s character that, “I have never met anyone more decent!”

What to say? I too had to turn to Seamus Heaney in a time of grief and suffering. I wrote the following:

“First and foremost, Bob was a teacher. He made a difference in the lives of several decades of students. He was one of the people who interviewed me for the position of Chaplain at the school. I counted him among my friends.

He is among the kindest people I have ever met and with whom I worked on a daily basis. Sally, his wife, was from Ireland. Bob loved the Irish people. He and family enjoyed making trips to there. He appeared on one late August day in my office after a visit to Ireland with a scroll. He always smiled when he gave gifts to others. Since his life was a gift, he smiled often. When I unrolled the poster, it was a scroll with the words Seamus Heaney, The Spirit Level, a book he wrote after he received the Nobel Prize. Heaney was born in Northern Ireland and was a Nobel Prize winning poet who died in 2013. I would later learn that he wrote about Irish events and evoked the Irish rural life in his poetry. He taught at universities at Belfast, Dublin, Harvard, and Oxford.

I had the scroll framed and hung in my office over my desk where I viewed it for years.

Bob’s teaching passion was all things that would come under the aegis of the English Department. I knew of Seamus Heaney but was not very familiar with his works so I assumed that the level in Spirit Level was akin to different levels of experience found in Dante’s Inferno,

which describes the levels of Hell. Later I would learn that the level in the title referred to a carpenter’s level used to find the horizontal and vertical balance used in building anything such as a house or a life. When I was building our house on the Chesapeake, a neighbor presented me with a four-foot level with the words, “You can’t build a house without this.”

So why so much time in this blog about Heaney? First, Bob loved Heaney’s work. Spirit Level has much to say about balance, equilibrium, or karma. That was the key to Bob’s personality and his relationships with others. As students and I experienced him, you didn’t have to worry about who was going to arrive to teach class that day. Balance and a steady nature were what made him tick. If he had a bad day, that never affected who showed up for class or a meeting. He never let a difficult problem throw him off balance for he learned that balance and, inverting the words of T. S. Eliot, was “the center that had to hold.”

The family read poems from Seamus Heaney at Bob’s gravesite before he was interred.

When I think about God choosing poets to be his/her voice in grief and struggle, I think as well of the words of our first ever Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, who was asked to recite her poem, The Hill We Climb, at President Biden’s Inauguration. It is as powerful as any biblical prophet who was God’s voice. Keep in mind that Governor DeSantis and his pressure on school districts only permitted the poem to be read to older students. President Biden wanted the world to hear her. Knowing that, it makes her words even more powerful and prophetic that our world needs to hear. With that in mind I wanted you to hear the “voice of God” and not just read her words for Amanda Gorman herself is the messenger and the message as was true of prophets of old.

The video of her giving the address is below!

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